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What is a Code of Ethics?

Victoria MacLennan. 14 April 2023, 4:33 pm

In today's digital age, ethics play an increasingly critical role in the digital technology space. As technology advances, so do the opportunities for unethical behaviour. Unethical practices such as data breaches, cyberbullying, and spreading misinformation can harm individuals and society as a whole. 

As an industry we design and develop software, hardware, and systems that impact every aspect of peoples lives, from how we communicate to how we conduct business. With this power comes great responsibility, in a recent hui with ITP members I explored with them the role of ethics in our industry and we discussed everything from developing a culture of ethics to the US Corrupt Practices act as different approaches to tackling this complex and nuanced challenge. This post covers some of our discussion. 

What is a Code of Ethics 

A code of ethics provides a set of guidelines that help guide making ethical decisions. This is particularly important in an industry where the pace of change is rapid, and the consequences of mistakes can be significant. A code of ethics can help digital technology professionals navigate complex ethical dilemmas and make decisions that align with the values of their profession.

ITP members all agree to be bound by our code of ethics. You can see here it’s in plain English and easy to use as a guide 

Having a code of ethics is essential for any organisation working with digital technology, as it provides a set of guidelines for employees to follow, ensuring that ethical considerations are integrated into all aspects of the organisation's operations.

Creating a culture of ethics

Based on the experience of our group we framed up some thoughts on an approach to creating a culture of ethics. 

  • Lead by example: Leaders within the organisation must model ethical behaviour and values, and demonstrate a commitment to ethical decision-making.
  • Adopt a code of ethics: A clear and comprehensive code of ethics can help establish ethical expectations and provide a framework for decision-making.
  • Communicate expectations: It is important to communicate ethical expectations to all employees and stakeholders, and to provide regular training and guidance on ethical decision-making.
  • Encourage ethical behaviour: Recognise and reward ethical behaviour and make it clear that unethical behaviour will not be tolerated.
  • Establish accountability: Hold individuals and teams accountable for their actions and ensure that there are consequences for unethical behaviour.
  • Foster transparency: Create an environment of openness and transparency, where employees feel comfortable reporting ethical concerns and where processes are in place to investigate and address those concerns.
  • Continuously evaluate and improve: Regularly assess the effectiveness of the organisation's ethics program and make changes as needed to ensure that it remains relevant and effective.
  • Creating a culture of ethics takes time, effort, and commitment from all levels to building trust. 

Culture vs legislation

Our group agreed that instilling ethical behaviour via a culture of ethics is a more effective approach than relying solely on legislation. 

Legislation can provide clear guidelines and consequences for unethical behaviour, but it cannot ensure that individuals will act ethically. A culture of ethics, on the other hand, can create an environment where ethical behaviour is the norm and where individuals feel empowered to speak up when they see unethical behaviour. This type of culture encourages individuals to act in the best interests of their organisation and society as a whole, and can be more effective in preventing unethical behaviour than compliance - although we agreed both can work in tandem.

Ethics and Algorithms 

We couldn’t have a hui on Ethics without talking about algorithms. Algorithms are intended to be objective and unbiased, but as we know can often perpetuate biases and discrimination if they are based on flawed or incomplete data/code.

Transparency and accountability are essential when it comes to ethics and algorithms. Transparency means that the algorithms and their decision-making processes should be open and easily understood by the users and affected parties. This includes disclosing how the algorithm works, the data that it uses, and how the results are obtained. 

Accountability involves ensuring that the algorithm developers and users are responsible for the outcomes and impacts of the algorithm, and that there are mechanisms in place to remedy any negative impacts. This includes the ability for affected parties to challenge algorithmic decisions and to seek redress if needed. 

Both transparency and accountability are critical to ensuring that algorithms are developed and used ethically and that their potential negative impacts are minimised.

Does this create an opportunity for Aotearoa NZ?

Aotearoa’s unique bicultural context provides an opportunity for the country to lead the way in promoting ethical digital technology that incorporates Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) and values. Mātauranga Māori is based on an interconnected worldview that recognises the interdependence of all things and emphasises the importance of sustainability and holistic wellbeing. By incorporating Mātauranga Māori into the development and use of digital technology, New Zealand can ensure that technology aligns with these values and benefits all New Zealanders, including Māori.

We started to imagine creating a framework the rest of the world could adopt, exposing the mahi being undertaken here in Aotearoa on bias and producing more equitable outcomes. We even felt the Government’s algorithm charter is a good building block to build from. It’s worth sharing this paper on AI as a great example of Aotearoa’s capability in this arena

Back to the Code of Ethics

If you don’t have one we think a code of ethics is a great place to start. 

As members of IT Professionals we go one step further and have a framework for breaches should someone be reported for breaching our code. This is an important building block in ensuring our industry matures and professionalises. 

This will be the first of a series on ethics but a good place to get started. Need help? Let me know. Nga mihi Vic 


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